User Control as an Opportunity

There’s no question people are gaining increased control over the media they consume.

And the more control they get in one channel, the more they demand in others. The Internet trained people to expect instant gratification and WIWWIWI (what I want when I want it, which I’m trying to introduce, as some bizarre corollary to WYSIWYG) from media. You click, you get what you asked for. If it’s a piece of audio/video content and it turns out to be boring, you click to something else. If an ad pops up in between, you close the window. It’s information and entertainment truly at your fingertips and under your control. The Web laid the groundwork, in some ways, for the introduction of the DVR.

Suddenly, people had the technology and power to expect the same instant gratification from their TV media experience. You tell the DVR what you want to watch and it records it for you, queuing the content up for your enjoyment whenever you want.

What’s ironic in this entire process is people have always had this kind of control over some other media, probably without ever really thinking about it. For example, magazine and newspapers have always afforded a certain amount of control. In a magazine, an ad appears every few pages. If you’re interested, you spend some time reading the ad. If not, turn the page. It’s your call; you’re in full control.

For the most part, it doesn’t work like that in broadcast media. The same sort of implicit value exchange exists. I know I’m getting this content at a discount (or for free) and that the ads are funding it. But the ads are always forced on me. Sure, I can leave the room or mute or change the channel, but I can’t immediately get back to my content.

Years ago, Arthur C. Clarke likened TV viewers to “readers who have become reconciled to the fact that the fifth page of every book consists of an advertisement which they are not allowed to skip.

So in some media, people have always had control. It’s just that technology is now enabling the same kind of control in other media.

The unfortunate thing is consumer media control has been painted by some in the press and in our industry as a bad thing. It’s something to be feared. It’s a threat to our business. It represents the demise of television content and the :30 spot as we know them. Or so you’d think if you read a random sampling of the trade pubs.

I take exception to that. I look at it a different way, and I’d like to encourage everyone to consider this point of view: Consumer control isn’t a threat. It should be embraced as the farthest thing from a threat. Consumer control is perhaps the greatest opportunity that the marketing world has ever faced.


Control is creating an upheaval in the way our industry works, so we have the chance to create something better. A few years back, I read results from a consumer opinion poll that ranked advertising professionals only a step or two ahead of lawyers in terms of trustworthiness. It needn’t be that way. People don’t hate advertising. They hate “badvertising,” ads that are irrelevant, not entertaining, and intrusive and annoying. If we can take a deep breath, roll up our sleeves, and find a new model that maybe isn’t so interruptive, perhaps we can strike a better balance with consumers. Maybe we can return to a world where the value exchange is clear.

Here’s an opportunity to radically reinvent the way we do things. It’s happening, but it needs to go farther. Everyone knows the model isn’t a TV model. It’s maybe the one thing we can all agree on. But a lot of the thinking seems to be going in to finding the right length of a spot during content. The :30 is too long. The :15 isn’t working either, so maybe it’s a :10 or even a :05.

Here’s a radical thought: what if the answer lies not in how long we interrupt people’s viewing experience? Maybe it’s not about the duration of the thing, but rather finding a way to reach them without interrupting the experience? We embrace the fact they control the experience, and we find a completely new way to communicate with them and provide value. It seems like a win-win-win situation to me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a realist. We’ll have to figure something out. Maybe it’s a :05 spot that you can dive deeper into if you’re interested. I think there’s a lot of potential there. Here’s the ultimate rub: even though all the survey data points to tremendous annoyance with video ads online, they’re effective. People click them and marketers are seeing strong ROI (define). Our clients have, for the most part, experienced great success with pre-rolls, and the industry buzz is that it’s consistently higher performance than many other online advertising options. So for now, it’s really hard to rationalize yourself out of it if you’re a media buyer.

I wonder how long that’ll last. How much of that is the novelty factor? Pop-ups and pop-unders achieved huge success in the beginning as well, until the clutter got so intense consumers rebelled and downloaded pop-up blockers in spades. So let’s take a lesson from our own short online advertising history and look really hard at the model. The answer may lie in :05 spots as long as we control the clutter, but let’s not forget that other options are out there. Embrace the fact that consumer control is here, and let’s figure out how we can all get along.

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